Connie Bull: One tenth of a year is about every 36 days. Welcome to the journey of tithing our time! If we are indeed to bring all the tithes into the storehouse (Mal. 3:10), then we need to include the tithe of our time, for each day is a day the Lord has made (Ps. 118:24). […]
KB Categories Archives: Christian Disciplines
Tracy Balzer (right) was the guest for this edition of Ancient-Future Faith radio. She is the director of Christian Formation at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She is the author of Thin Places (Leafwood 2007), A Listening Life (Pinyon, 2011), and Permission to Ponder: Contemplative Wisdom for the Spiritually Distracted (Leafwood, 2015). She holds a Master of Ministry degree, is a certified spiritual director and advocate of Celtic spirituality, and is an oblate at the beautiful Subiaco Abbey, also in Arkansas. Tracy regularly leads pilgrimages and study trips to the British Isles, having a special interest and affection for the Isle of Iona, Scotland.
My wife and I have just enjoyed another anniversary. Celebrating this event has also encouraged me to reflect upon the entire sweep of our meeting, dating, engagement, marriage and honeymoon.
Our honeymoon was spent in Scotland. The preparative process was simple, direct, without any fuss or bother. We threw some clothes in two knapsacks, drove to the airport, boarded the plane, and arrived in England, then in Scotland, nine hours later. Joy!
This is no longer what happens. My wife now packs her bags for a solid week, fills two trunks of luggage that could each serve as a small home for newlyweds, unpacks, repacks, decides upon what she should not take, and finally padlocks her bulging luggage for the journey. Of course, as the dutiful husband who only totes a knapsack, I carry her semi-trailers as well.
Often, when we finally board the plane, I look lovingly at my bride and cry, “DUDE, WHERE IS MY WIFE? WHAT DID YOU DO TO THE WOMAN I MARRIED?!” That is, in other words, what has happened to my knapsack wife? What has happened to the freewheeling vagabond, the would-be “hippie,” I married? I want my knapsack wife back!
I am still of the opinion that we only need a little for our travels. A knapsack over the shoulder will do, unless we are journeying for a month on the Camino De Santiago. But, of course, that would be a rare exception. On most occasions, a little is enough.
In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from our enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross of strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is height of virtue, in the cross the perfection of sanctity -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
Those who do not belong to Christ misunderstand and malign the cross. A mockery to heathens and a myth to many Jews, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is often misapprehended by Christians as well. Many believers in Christ gratefully look back upon the cross as simply a “justification accomplished” event. Attending the Divine Service, and participating in Holy Communion, is no more than a “remembrance.” Neglecting both the Hebrew understanding of “remembrance” and the “do this” imperative, many Christians give little attention to living the crucified life. As Thomas á Kempis has written, “Jesus has now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross” (Imitation).
Ash Wednesday introduces us to a new Season of the Church and, as well, a renewed opportunity to radically (in our culture) follow Christ. Lent, those days of denial between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday, reminds us of both Christ finished work and our ongoing responsibility. Far more than our now-defunct “New Year’s Resolution,” Lent provides Church-sanctioned and (hopefully) Spirit-inspired occasion to renew our walk with Christ along the “Way of Sorrows.”
Of course, such a prospect is not entirely “inspirational”– at least in strictly human terms. Who wants to take up the cross? Who wants to deny her or himself? Who wants to die, and “daily” at that? Who wants the narrow road along the Via Dolorosa? Let’s be honest, nobody wants to– even if we want to, in the broadest sense, follow Christ. It is, indeed, a hard road.
Thomas á Kempis, quoted at the introduction of this article, provides us with a different perspective on the cross. While certainly a “cross,” á Kempis highlights the “crown” embedded within it. He has apprehended the truth, communicated in one translation of a Psalm, “the Lord reigns from a tree.”
First he tells us that “the cross is salvation.” Generally speaking, Christians understand this. Without the cross of Christ, there is no forgiveness of sin or sins. Sadly, as mentioned earlier, we often embrace this as a fond (yet safely distant) remembrance. In fact, however, beyond the past, the cross is persistently present in the life of the Christian. It is salvation now…now…now…perpetually now. It is a “now” event because, for the Christian, the cross is firmly planted in the Gethsemane of our tangled emotions, the Golgotha of our minds and the tomb of our withered hearts. It hangs before our faded sight, as Constantine’s faded hope, shouting “In this sign conquer.” And in this planted sign, by God’s grace, we will conquer!
As well, á Kempis tells us that “the cross is life.” This assertion requires a new perspective. If our lives are rooted in this world, these words will never make sense. In order to apprehend and be apprehended by this truth, we need to understand that Christ’s cross is grounded in present realty as viewed from future hope. The cross is “life” as seed that was planted in Eden’s promise, Prophet’s speech, Psalmist’s song and Apostle’s testimony. The seed is Christ; Christ planted within the heart of every Christian by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus “endured” the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Shame and sorrow were enveloped in Sovereignty. Today in our most abject poverty, mourning surrenders to the “now” of God’s presence and the tomorrow of God’s absolute and unbroken rule. The cross is life because, as Aaron’s Rod, it blossoms.
The cross is, as well, “protection from our enemies.” This is an odd statement, given the fact that Christ died at the hands of his enemies– the jealous, the grandiose, the violent, the envious, the rank idolaters and adulterers, the ones who wear our faces and bear our names. Where is protection when, naked and abused, you hang upon a cross? There is absolutely no “easy answer.” And yet, thankfully, there is an answer. When, like Christ, we come to bear the cross, when we accept this as our life-giving portion in this life, we have the protection promised in ‘a Kempis’ words. We are told that “the Son of God came forth to die,” and that we have no higher expectation. If we come to die, if we come for the cross, if our expectation is tribulation, we have no enemies to be protected from. If we embrace the worst, the cross, what more can enemies say or do? When we come to embrace what our enemies impose, what more can they do?
The cross, according to the writer of Imitation, is “infusion of heavenly sweetness.” How can this be? The answer is found in what Christ has done and what Christ will do. Our Lord knew God’s “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” the excruciating depth of which words were apparently incomprehensible to the hearers (Mark 15:33–35), so that we would not need to speak them ourselves. He knew the bitter gall (Mark 15:36) of separation so that we might be spared it. He released his Spirit, in promise (John 20:22) and in completion of his work (John 19:30), so that we might receive the sweetness of the Spirit (Acts 2) and be perpetually renewed in and by him (Acts 4). This holy infusion is the fullness of poverty presently realized (Matthew 5:3). It is the pay-off of mourning’s hard investment (Matthew 5:4). It is the inheritance of the humble (Matthew 5:5), the fullness of the hungry (Matthew 5:6), the living water of the thirsty (Matthew 5:6), righteousness for the unrighteous (Matthew 5:6), and vision of Glory (Matthew 5:7) with peace… and promise of persecution.
Given these things, in spite of the crisis and the cries, the cross is “strength of mind.” Take a moment, maybe many moments during Lent, to reflect upon Christ’s last seven “words.” Do these words in any way reflect a weak mind? Here, in spite of mockery, ridicule and abuse, we discover a most-stable and most-centered man. There are many reasons for this, but one of the reasons is that our Lord was singular in purpose. His purpose and his power were in pleasing the Father. The singular and centered mind set upon the calling of Christ, infused by the Spirit, is a most-stable mind and the foundation of a most-stable life.
There is a marked absence of joy in our world today. A similar deflation has infected the Church. We are SO VERY DESPERATE to manufacture emotionally charged worship simply because we have not really known the cross or the infusion of dynamic spiritual grace. To know the crown we must own the cross. According to á Kempis, the cross is “joy of spirit.” Are we feeling empty? Are we feeling joyless? Has life lost some (or even most) of its meaning? These experiences might simply be because we are not embracing the cross. Although this is counter-intuitive and, from a human perspective, contradictory, the cross and celebration go together. We are, metaphorically and practically speaking, raised up by the cross.
“The cross is,” as well, “the height of virtue.” How is it the height of virtue? First and foremost it is the height because it is upon the cross that Christ, the perfect God-Man, secured our salvation, sanctification and glorification. He is the reason for its height. However, as imitators of Christ who are created and called to his “likeness,” we have a share in the virtue Christ and his cross provide. Virtue is given us, but it is a process of growth as well. Growing in the virtues is our Christian vocation. Peter, the Apostle, makes virtue a priority in his second letter. Virtue, he writes, his furthered by knowledge, self-control and steadfastness. This results in, or is further enhanced by, godliness (2 Peter 1:5–6). There is no means of growth than by the cross– its knowledge (implying intimacy), and the self-control and steadfastness that it requires. The cross is a “taking up” and not an “arriving at.” It is a path, and not simply a destination.
As such, the cross is “the perfection of sanctity.” The holy person clings to the cross, as Christ gracefully hung upon his, because this is “absolute surrender” to God. It is, as well, what is best for lost humanity– even if the lost do not know it, or are entirely disinterested in it. It is in our own best interest, and in the best interest of a fallen world, that we cling to Christ’s cross. It is our “Yes” to God who, in Christ, has said “Yes” to us.
Jesus says to take up your cross. Your cross and my cross are not the same. Although there certainly will be similarities of design, there will be striking dissimilarities. Each cross is unique, designed by God for us for our ongoing “perfection of sanctity” and “joy of spirit.” Let this Season of Lent, soon to begin, set us upon the narrow path of following Christ. Lord, in your mercy, have mercy upon us.
Everything we value we view with purpose and intentionality. Normally-occurring changes happen in everyone’s lives. These changes often challenge our habits and the things we treasure. Depending on how clearly we understand the meaning of the values we place on people, things and habits, these will either survive the changes or be left behind to make way for the new. There was a time in my life that I was sick and tired of being heavy…chubby…fat. I had battled poor fitness my whole life. Now, as the sun was about to set on my 20’s, I embarked on a fitness and diet routine that helped me to become stronger and slimmer than I had ever been. This new reality was made possible by routines of regular and frequent exercise along with habitual and constant positive eating habits. My daily and weekly schedule reflected my values with purpose and intentionality. Three years later we moved. Along with a new job came new responsibilities, new priorities and new stresses. My new schedule seemed to leave no time for exercise, especially habitual exercise. There was also the strong compulsion to salve my stresses through comfort eating. What happened to my habits? My values changed. Taking care of my new responsibilities meant more to me than taking care of my body.
My story makes the point that the value we place on something is based on its meaning. We will craft our daily and weekly schedule to accommodate the things we treasure. However, when change comes into our lives, we will be tempted to surrender the things value, trading them for something that seems more necessary– more meaningful.
Something all Christians agree on as being meaningful is the Lord’s Supper. Mark’s Gospel account of the Lord’s Supper tells us:
“Then he took the cup, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This I my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, he said to them.” -Mark 14:23-24
Jesus was eating the Passover meal with his disciples. While sharing this holy observance, he gave it a new meaning and told us to eat and drink. My purpose is not to promote one of the many interpretations different Christian traditions have ascribed to the Lord’s Supper. Instead, I am making the point that whatever way a church understands the meaning of the Lord’s Supper should lead them to intentionality and purpose with regard to the timing and frequency of the Lord’s Supper.
In my Southern Baptist tradition, there is a great variety in the frequency the observance of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, a 2012 random survey of Southern Baptist pastors conducted by LifeWay Research showed that fifty-seven percent of the pastor’s churches observed the Lord’s Supper once a quarter, eighteen percent monthly and only one percent weekly. Even though it is possible that these churches all came to a conclusion regarding the meaning of and frequency for observing the Lord’s Supper, it is also possible that their practices “developed over the course of history and have been perpetuated with little reflection or rationale” (40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Hammett, John S., 289). Many Baptists might point to an agreed meaning of the Lord’s Supper as being done at Christ’s command and “in remembrance.” Rather than being a means of making a regular deposit into one’s salvation, the Baptist (Zwinglian) view of remembrance may not seem to demand as much frequency. As Keith Mathison stated, “nature determines frequency” (Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Mathison, Keith., 293). An alternate perspective is proposed by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor John Hammett: “If the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is solely for us to remember Christ’s sacrifice, perhaps a quarterly observance would be sufficient, through it could also be asked if we can be reminded of the cross too often. But if the Lord’s Supper is given to us as a ‘means of grace,’ by which believing hearts experience communion with Christ, are nourished spiritually, are encouraged by anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb, and are renewed in unity and love by partaking ‘of the one loaf’ (1 Corinthians 10:17) and recognizing the corporate body of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:29), then such a gift would naturally be something we would desire more frequently.” (40 Question, 292-293)
Is any church healthier because it observes the Lord’s Supper less often? Has the frequency of the observance of the Lord’s Supper fallen prey to new things we have decided are more valuable? Are our deeply held traditions concerning the periodicity of the Lord’s Supper being kept for the sake of history rather than their meaning? I believe these questions should be prayerfully answered as we strive to be part of His kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
“[Spiritual direction is] help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
Who could not agree with this definition? It is informed, concise, eminently practical, and enticingly flexible. It is precisely this flexibility that commends it as an effective bridge between spiritual direction and Christian counseling.
Christian counselors and spiritual directors are increasingly being trained in each discipline. Schools like BiolaUniversity (with Rosemead School of Psychology and the Institute of Spiritual Formation both on campus) are flourishing. Unfortunately, although there certainly are some very important distinctions to be maintained between these two disciplines, there are also a number of items that commend a seamless integration of the two. Common distinctions between the two disciplines may be highlighted as follows:
Spiritual Direction Christian Counseling
Wellness focused Illness focused
God focused “Man” focused
Spiritual /Biblical Psychological
Although this is a brief and broad overview, the apparent dissimilarities between the two disciplines are amply demonstrated. Spiritual direction is a very ancient practice, whereas counseling, including Christian counseling, has supposedly only arisen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Counseling has been illness focused and intent upon resolving problems. Spiritual direction on the other hand does not in any way assume that people come for direction because they are experiencing some form of illness or problem. Instead of a problem, spiritual direction is focused upon our potential in God, prayer, listening and discernment. “Wrestling with God” is more important than the resolution of any particular issue one may be facing. Further details highlighting the supposed distinctions between Christian counseling and spiritual direction need not be made, although we will return to this issue at the conclusion of this article. Anyone trained in both disciplines understands and respects these distinctions.
My problem, however, is with the artificiality and arbitrary nature of these distinctions. The dissimilarities are not as dissimilar as we may think. We may be showing these dissimilarities too much unwise respect. When properly understood and applied there are seamless similarities between the two disciplines, especially when referring to Christian (i.e., Biblical) counseling.
If we accept the definition proposed by Barry and Connolly, Christian counseling and spiritual direction are virtually the same. As a spiritual director and Christian counselor I can utilize this definition and its applications in either discipline. These similarities are the focus of this article. The purpose of this exercise is to not only demonstrate their similarities, but, by outlining the similarities between the disciplines, return the focus of Christian counseling to its roots in spiritual direction. To be more specific, one might consider Christian counseling as a subheading under spiritual direction. This will have a powerful impact upon those who come to us for spiritual direction and Christian counseling.
Ancient and Modern
One of the primary distinctions between Christian counseling and spiritual direction is the antiquity of direction and the modernity of counseling. Spiritual direction has been around for thousands of years, predating both Christianity and Judaism, whereas Christian counseling is supposedly a “Johnny-come-lately” response to the psychoanalysis of Freud and others. Spiritual direction is, indeed, an ancient practice. Christian counseling is, as understood, a relative newcomer. There are difficulties with this analysis, however. The writers of both the Old and New Testaments were both shrewd spiritual directors and effective “Christian” counselors. Christian counseling, as a means of resolving intra and interpersonal issues, is clearly found in the biblical texts. Christian counseling was imbedded very clearly within the priority and practice of spiritual direction as we examine many biblical texts. Both functioned simultaneously and seamlessly. Similarly, the monks of the 4th and 5th centuries were not only effective spiritual directors, but capable Christian counselors. Their understanding of the human psyche was profound. The collected writings of the Philokalia and elsewhere bear ample witness to the psychological (or soul) sophistication of these spiritual directors.
Long before there was psychoanalysis, Christians harnessed the process of Confession in order to help others experience catharsis and transformation. At its best, modern psychology, and Christian counseling in particular, can be seen as a form of Confession. Other examples might also be cited that challenge the assumption that there is a modern/ancient distinction between Christian counseling and spiritual direction. Does this arbitrary distinction (although having some measure of truth) really matter? It only matters if one assumes a dissimilarity between the disciplines and a blind embrace of Enlightenment rationalism as is commonly applied to the practice of theological exegesis and its practical outworking in the theory and practice of Christian counseling. It only matters if, while maintaining certain elemental boundaries, we do not believe that our clients deserve a more cohesive approach to counseling that reaps the benefit of the long history between these two disciplines.
I, for one, do not accept such arbitrary distinctions, and believe them to be counterproductive to those who come to us for help. And, once again, Barry and Connolly’s definition in no way excludes Christian counseling being seen as a form of spiritual direction.
Wellness and Illness
It is an obvious fact for any Christian Counselor or spiritual director that the people who come to us are a mixture. Matthew Fox acknowledges this reality in his important (yet, in my mind, theologically questionable) Original Blessing. Larry Crabb bears similar witness with his reference to our being a “glorious ruin.” The Bible, as well as Church Tradition and dogma, affirms the same. At their best, sociology and psychology do not contradict this position. History and personal experience bear this out. Using the Methodist quadrilateral as our reference, Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all attest to the fact of humanity’s dignity and depravity, wellness and illness. Such is the condition of every human being (apart from Christ who did not sin) who is created in the image of God and yet fallen.
Why then do we suggest that spiritual direction tends to be more wellness oriented (i.e. everyone needs spiritual direction, ill or not) and Christian counseling tends to be more sickness oriented (i.e. most people do not go to counseling unless there is some form of a problem)? It is my belief that this senseless dichotomy exists because we misunderstand both the focus and function of Christian counseling and spiritual direction.
A case can certainly be made that spiritual direction is primarily focused upon how a person can more effectively listen to God, respond to “Him,” and grow in grace. On the surface, one need not be sick in order to experience God on an ever-deepening level. As St. Brigit of Kildare has said, “Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” Contrary to this, the common understanding of Christian counseling does imply illness as being the critical issue in therapy. Gary Collins opens his magnum opus with “I never thought there could be so many hurting people!” Larry Crabb suggests that his form of “Biblical Counseling” has a great deal to do with “stubborn problems.” A perusal of the literature of Jay Adams also focuses upon how the biblical text can address humanity’s manifold problems. Problems, sin, and sickness, are center stage. (And, on some level, must always be.)
I have no basic argument with either position. Spiritual direction and Christian counseling do have the focus and function that have been hinted at. Nevertheless, this view is both somewhat restrictive and unnecessary. Both of these reflect a cultural bias that is ill-informed. In both cases, people approach us who are a mixture. This is a “given.” Christian counselors and spiritual directors know this. There is nothing profound about this assertion. Would it not be more productive, however, to understand that spiritual direction and Christian counseling both share the common focus, function and goal of having our clients know and experience God in such a way so as to further develop a sanctified life? Aren’t both wellness and illness inherent to both disciplines? Cannot a focus upon the resolution of “sickness” (the Christian counseling product) be seen as the process of spiritual direction whereby, whether the problem is resolved or not, growth in grace and the experience of God is advanced? Listening to God and responding to what is communicated does in some way involve “digging” our ears and “purging” our hearts — both of which have distinct parallels to Christian counseling and spiritual direction. Both practices share a great deal of common ground.
God focused and “Man” focused
It seems to be a simple equation to which everyone attests: In spiritual direction we focus upon the prayer-focused listening disposition we must develop in order to discern the words, will and way of God, whereas in Christian counseling we focus upon the person who is front of us, their need, and how we (at best) hope to help the client achieve a godly solution to h/er presenting problem.
These distinctions, while moderately factual, are manifestly not functional. Even when we earnestly strive to keep what some perceive to be the very distinct professional boundaries between spiritual direction and Christian counseling, we cannot help but see the overlap and intersection between them. In practice the boundaries are repeatedly blurred. Both Christian counselors and spiritual directors will focus upon God and the client. Both will pray. Both will be involved in the process of discernment. Both will rely upon the Holy Spirit. Both will consult Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church. Both will attend to issues of wellness and illness in the hearing and healing process. Both will involve one Christian coming to another for help and direction.
The jurisdictional province of spiritual directors may principally address our relationships with God, while Christian counselors may principally address how we can overcome certain problems in our lives, but both focus upon what might be termed both “spiritual” and “direction.” Are there any problems that are not essentially “spiritual” when we understand the nature of the Fall? Doesn’t even the mature practice of spiritual direction suggest that at times “dark nights” (always reflecting socio-psycho-pneumatic realities) must be addressed through the prayerful and careful use of psychology? And we must not forget that our “dark nights” do not always fall into neat spiritual or socio-psycho-emotive categories. Doesn’t even Dr. C. G. Jung suggest that most of our psychological problems are religious in nature and resolution?
Spiritual direction and Christian counseling are also often non-directive in their approach. This does not mean that either the counselor or director will not at times appeal to the Bible, or other Christian courts of discernment, to address an issue. What it does suggest is that counselor and director will both have such a profound respect for the person and action of God so as to allow the client to make those choices that s/he decides to make. Christian counselors and spiritual directors cannot force issues, although expectations, goals and discipline are inherent to the practice of each charism. In some way both disciplines are a “hands off” enterprise that depends not only on professional training and personal skills, but, more so, upon the Holy Spirit who is ultimately the agent of transformation. Both are exercises of faith, hope and love. The borders between Christian counseling and spiritual direction are at times exceedingly thin, at best.
It seems to me that the (at times) artificial “God focused” or “Man focused” boundary needs instead to be seen as functioning as a continuum where, depending upon the need of the client, the Christian counselor or spiritual director is led to utilize one approach above the other in order to help achieve the purpose(s) of God.
Let me be blunt: with proper understanding and training, a director is a counselor when required and a counselor is a director when required. Spiritual direction might be used as Christian counseling just as Christian counseling might be used as spiritual direction. It often depends upon where the client is “at” at any given moment.
Wrestling and Resolution
One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is of Jacob wrestling with God. Apart from a host of personal applications, I have also employed this story in both “secular” and “sacred” settings, with Christians and non-Christians, and as a spiritual director and Christian counselor. In both Christian counseling and spiritual direction there is the constant holy tension between wrestling and resolution. The words of St. Augustine of Hippo illustrate why. Augustine wrote “the heart is restless until it finds its rest in [God].” All of us have known such restlessness. If we are believers in Jesus Christ we have also experienced that peace that puts an end to sinful and/or senseless striving.
In spite of this, if we are honest, we also know that we are works in progress, always wrestling and always finding resolution in, by, and through, Christ and his liberating gospel. This holy tension between wrestling and resolution, between seeking and finding, between abject poverty of spirit and the bountiful riches of the kingdom of God are the staple of the Christian life. They are both central to spiritual direction and Christian counseling.
Why do we suggest that wrestling is the domain of spiritual direction while resolution is the domain of Christian counseling? The answer certainly does not reside in either the nature of spiritual direction or Christian counseling. The answer resides in who we are as human beings, particularly those of us who live in the Western world. We live in a society that worships instant gratification. As inheritors of the scientific Enlightenment we are programmed to think that if there is a “problem” we need to “solve” it as soon as we can. In some ways, this is a useful paradigm. If I am dying from some disease, I certainly hope a miracle resolution will come in my lifetime. If the electricity is out, I hope that it can be fixed as soon as possible. If I am hungry I want to eat.
This simple framework does not always work, however, in either Christian counseling or spiritual direction. We tend to pigeon-hole, compartmentalize and, consequently, fragment. We have come to think of therapists as “problem solvers” and directors as “guides” or “friends.” In our thinking a guide or friend does not need to have “answers,” they just need to be there. In Christian counseling it is similar. A friend or guide may be good, but people come to counseling to get “real” help, and not generally to have the Christian counselor “be there.” We must remain mindful of these expectations, as faulty or limited as they may be.
Nevertheless, in spite of these social expectations, a case can and should be made for a crossover between spiritual direction and Christian counseling. To me, even given the commonly understood wrestling/resolution paradigm, such a crossover is natural and necessary. Both counselors and directors would agree that in each respective field there is the need for both wrestling and resolution. Moreover, if we understand that all of life is the proper jurisdiction of God and that there is a fluid relationship between what we would deem to be the natural and spiritual, the secular and the sacred, the competent director and counselor must “flow” with the need of the client. The compartmentalization of disciplines we have inherited, while offering some good, has also damaged how we see people and how we approach the practice of spiritual direction and Christian counseling.
Spiritual and Psychological
The human person is a single, unified, being. The artificial divisions we make between body, soul and spirit, between head (thinking), heart (feeling) and hands (acting), between spiritual and socio-psycho-emotive are (while at times useful) arbitrary when involved in the care and cure of souls —- whether as Christian counselors or spiritual directors. We are approached by the whole person and it is the whole person to whom we must attend.
It would be simple and safe to say that we are spiritual directors and that we only deal with the “spiritual,” or that as Christian counselors we only deal with the socio-psycho-emotive. Personally I am not sure where the division of disciplines in theory, practice, or life, begins or ends. Where does one draw the line? Of course professional competence must be respected. People who come to us must not be duped into receiving something for which they did not ask. We do need to be attentive to the norms and expectations of our society. Nevertheless, in practice and in principle they are one.
The life of Martin Luther is a good example of what I am suggesting. It is well known that Luther had a spiritual director during his tumultuous years as a struggling monk. He suffered with what some people have come to know as “scruples.” Obviously his struggle with “scruples” had some distinct socio-psycho-emotive overtones. It might also be said, in spite of the profound debt we owe this reformer, that Luther was certainly not the most balanced of human beings. At least one author has carefully documented this imbalance.
This being the case, what would you do with Luther if he came to you for assistance? Is his problem spiritual “scruples,” psychological trauma, socio-religious environment, or some mixture? Obviously Luther’s problems were in some way a mixture, and he needed both spiritual direction and Christian counseling. Certainly it appears, if we are to believe both Erikson and history, that Luther had some unresolved problems with his father. This may have been at least part of the source of his anxiety over thunderstorms, demons and authority. As we all know, anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand. Luther’s “scruples,” albeit related to anxiety, may also have been tied to a profound sense of his guilt and the fear and depression that resulted from it.
Culture and religion also played a role in Luther’s problems. All of these issues were interconnected. The “spiritual” and the socio-psycho-emotive were all wound up into who Luther was. All of these needed attention. All of these are the proper province of trained counselors and directors.
Personal and Professional
There is an ongoing debate as to whether Spiritual direction should be considered a profession. Further debate centers upon whether directors should be certified and receive financial remuneration for their services. In keeping with cultural expectations, however, Codes of Ethics are provided by such groups as Spiritual Directors International and The Center for Sacred Theology. And, although these Codes are not mandated, they certainly are strongly encouraged. On the other hand, Christian counseling is often considered to be a profession with distinct training provided to those who wish to exercise their ministry through this discipline. Christian counselors also have Codes of Ethics, depending upon the Association or Society to which s/he belongs.
These distinctions were greatly influenced by the history of each discipline. Spiritual direction was commonly provided by laypersons which were empowered with a charism appropriate to the exercise of this gift and ministry. Although pastors or priests (primarily through the administration of the sacraments and the pulpit) exercised some form of direction, it was the “common” people who often filled the role of directors. The revival of interest in this discipline in the 1970’s also understood that one need not be a “professional” in order to provide effective soul care. The care of souls was one of a personal (i.e. friendship) nature. Counseling, however, was and is seen as being more “professional.” Even pastors and priests, although they may have had very little training in either discipline, are now seen as professionals whose responsibility it is to provide both direction and counseling.
The breakdown between the “personal” and “professional” becomes evident in several ways. First of all, the division is artificial. When engaged in Christian counseling, while boundaries must be honored, one does in some important way befriend the client. This is especially the case with Christian counseling that may take place within a church or a parish. However, even outside of the church or parish, some measure of “friendship,” of the “personal,” cannot be entirely avoided. Nor should it be avoided. Many positive changes occur when we embrace the factor of friendship. The implications of such friendship certainly had (and has) socio-psycho-emotive implications. Second, the designation is arbitrary. “Personal” care transports “professional” practice. Relationship is one the most persuasive mediators of effective care. Many people embrace change — and are transformed — based not simply upon our professional skills, but also upon the personal safety that relationship affords them.
The importance of friendship (with proper boundaries being observed) and relationship are critical to both ministries. Finally, the designation is abstract (impractical). It looks good on paper, but the professional/ personal paradigm does not work. This is especially so when we understand that both fit the Barry/ Connolly definition, both have Codes of Ethics, both often include training, both involve “friendship,” both address similar issues, both have similar goals, and (in many cases) both involve the very same people.
Process and Product
In our society, as stated in a similar fashion earlier, people look for the end product. “What will we get for our investment,” we ask. This is in some ways reasonable. If we buy a new car, we want to know that we are getting good quality for our dollar. If we invest $5000 on a new laptop, we want to know that we’re getting what I have paid for. This applies to almost any investment, including Christian counseling and spiritual direction.
However, as with the other subheadings, there are problems with such a division. It is true that direction may be more concerned about the journey. Spiritual formation is a life-long process that, quite likely, will continue for eternity. Hearing God and effectively responding to the Divine will is crucial to this process. Nevertheless, counseling shares similar concerns. While a person may come to me as a Christian counselor with an addiction problem, this does not mean that I must restrict myself to “addictions.” The similarities between certain addictions and the spiritual life are abundantly evident.
As a Christian counselor, as one who has been approached for addictions counseling, I am morally and ethically compelled to provide the counseling for which the client came. However, as I am dealing with Christian counseling, I may need to move into the field of spiritual direction as the spiritual elements of certain addictions are manifestly and abundantly obvious. Am I breaching any ethical codes if I am honest about the “spiritual” process we may need to use in order to achieve the product which the counseling originally sought? I believe it was Dr. Carl Jung who said to Roland H. that unless he (Roland) had a “profound religious experience,” he could not be delivered from his debilitating disease. Thousands of alcoholics have found Dr. Jung’s suggestion to be absolutely correct. So have I.
This illustration applies to many, if not all, the non-organic disorders we may find in Christian counseling. While people may approach the counselor for a particular product (help with anxiety, addiction, depression, anger, marriage, dysfunctional family, etc.), this does not in any way preclude the possibility that the process by which we seek to arrive at the product may be distinctly “spiritual” and stray into what has commonly been assigned and accepted as direction.
There are numerous writers, familiar with both disciplines, who caution us regarding the integration I (and others) am proposing. In Care of Mind/Care of Soul Dr. Gerald May writes “The primary danger in bringing [Spiritual Direction and Psychotherapy] together is that mental and emotional concerns may kidnap the gentle spirit of attentiveness required of both director and directee.” While acknowledging “many similarities” between the disciplines, he nevertheless questions (if not condemns) it because such a holistic approach requires “maturity and vigilance.” May is quick to add, however, that we are “unified being[s],” and a “balanced attitude” is required.
Similarly in his cautionary article in Christian Counseling Today on “Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Reflections and Cautions on the Integrative Path,” Dr. Gary Moon expresses several concerns regarding such an integration. He writes that we should “avoid importing rich resources across disciplinary boundaries that are only nominally understood […],” “dramatically” increase “training,” encourage “graduate schools” to offer more “formalized training” in this integration, and be careful to abide by ethical guidelines.
These cautions by both May and Moon are well taken. Caution is always wise. Proverbs tells us that the person who hastens with his feet errs. Nevertheless, one can at times be too cautious. Conservative theology has taught us that the process of theology can sometimes move too slow as well as too fast. It is balance, Spirit inspired balance that is biblically informed, to which we must aspire.
May, cited above, encourages such a “balanced attitude.” It is this “balanced attitude,” to the end of honoring our clients as “unified beings,” at which this article takes aim. Similarly cautionary references to “attentiveness” and “maturity and vigilance” are qualities any Christian counselor or spiritual director must aspire to attain and maintain. There are cautions that must be observed. Ethical and moral boundaries must be respected.
With this in mind, we would be wise to ask ourselves how and if we can bridge the divide that many have suggested exist between Christian counseling and spiritual direction. The fruit of such a task will richly benefit our clients and parishioners with a blessing that neither discipline could offer on its own.
 Barry, William A. and Connolly, William J. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. (Harper San Francisco, n/d) p. 8.
 Hedberg, Thomas M. and Caprio, Betsy. A Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors. (Dove Publications, 1992) p. 5 – 6.
 A very clear illustration of this is Christian Counseling by Dr. Gary Collins (W Publishing Group, 1988). While oversimplifying this important and useful book, it appears that, even from a brief scanning of its contents, Christian counseling is about the resolution of problems.
 Fr. Francis Benedict, OSB, Abbot Emeritus of St. Andrew’s Abbey, suggests that these two disciplines must be blended in order for effective direction to be provided. He goes on to suggest that the emphasis upon distinction may be unduly influenced by the “need” for professionalism and professional recognition.
 It is to be understood that when an integration is proposed throughout this article, that the Christian counselor and spiritual director will have had sufficient training in each discipline.
 See: A History of the Cure of Souls by John T. McNeill. (HarperCollins, 1977).
 I believe the Rule of St. Benedict is a wonderful example of this. He understood the socio-psycho-pneumatic needs of people.
 Sellner, Edward C. The Celtic Soul Friend. (Ave Maria Press, 1985) p. Dedication page. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid. p. 15
 Crabb, Larry. Effective Biblical Counseling. (Zondervan Publishing House, 1977) p. 16. It must be noted in quoting this, however, that this book represents the early Crabb. Since the writing of his profound text, Inside Out, Crabb has steadily moved toward the priorities, principles and practices of spiritual direction. If anyone presents an integrationist model for Christian counseling and spiritual direction within the evangelical community it is (with some reservations on my part) Dr. Crabb. Evangelicals owe Crabb an enormous debt of gratitude.
 I think that a good example of the wrestling/resolution paradigm, that should in fact be a wrestling and resolution paradigm, can be found in the writings of M. Scott Peck, most specifically The Road Less Traveled and The People of the Lie. I am now given to understand that he has a new book out that deals with demon possession/oppression in his clinical practice. Demon possession is another very clear example of where spiritual direction and Christian counseling (psychology) meet.
 A case might be made that a great many “saints” were not terribly well balanced human beings.
 See: Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. (W. W. Norton and Co., 1993).
 The life of Luther capably illustrates how, even when one has serious problems, the grace and calling of God can help one overcome one’s shortcomings in order to accomplish God’s purposes. I am also reminded of J. B. Phillips who, while experiencing what we might deem to be clinical depression, overcame this debilitating problem in order to translate The New Testament in Modern English without chemical intervention. Similarly, Charles Spurgeon also suffered from severe depression and yet went on to be one of the world’s greatest preachers.
 I am grateful to Spiritual Directors International for drawing ongoing attention to these issues.
 An exception to this rule is pastors/priests whose ministry and role require them to be both SDs and CCs with, in many cases, very little training. Parishioners come with many needs to the pastor/priest and require both Christian counseling and spiritual direction. Thankfully, especially over the past thirty years, pastors/priests are being provided more training in these areas.
 I do not always agree with this, however. Properly trained and ordained/commissioned pastors and priests are, of course, professionals. Our responsibilities as priests do, at times, have a sacramental dimension that closely parallels or provides spiritual direction. Moreover, Christian counseling is inherent to the office of a priest who functions as a pastor. This may range from simple encouragement to more exacting forms of counseling that may require either more precise training and/or referral. Pastors and priests are professionals, but this does not mean that s/he is qualified to provide the direction and/or counseling that is sometimes required of them. Thankfully, many schools are providing more training.
 See: Hunter, George C. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. (Abingdon Press, 2000) p. 47 – 55.
 Ibid. p. 69 – 70.
 When we advertise ourselves as CHRISTIAN counselors, my assumption is that people approach us because they want a particular emphasis in their counseling. They most likely are Christians —- and this should be ascertained as early as possible. However, some people might approach us, knowing full well that we are CHRISTIAN counselors, without any personal commitment to Christ. This does not mean that we should not address issues related more strictly to spiritual direction, IF, through the process of Christian counseling, we find that a “spiritual issue” is in some way impeding the resolution of a socio-psycho-emotive problem. The opposite is also true. If a person comes for spiritual direction but we find that a socio-psycho-emotive issue impedes “spiritual” progress, we must also address this — either through our own care (if trained) or through referral. Using Jung as an illustration, Roland H approach Jung for a psychological problem, but Jung provided him with a “spiritual” solution.
 May, Gerald G. Care of Mind/Care of Soul. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1982, 1992) p. 15.
 Ibid. p. 14.
 Ibid. p. 14.
 Moon, Gary. Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices (InterVarsity Press, 2004).
 Ibid. In the original document I was sent, these cautions fall on page 9. In the book, which I have not seen, they likely fall on the last few pages of Dr. Moon’s article.
The genius of historic Anglicanism is found, at least partially, in its ability to synthesize and simplify. Thomas Cranmer simplified many aspects of an exceptionally complicated “Catholic” tradition in order to make it accessible to common people who sought to live common lives of uncommon prayer. Cranmer’s devout approach to accessibility applies, although unequally, to the Bible, public worship and private devotion. Cranmer’s broad Nihil obstat is in some way affixed to each of these, most especially as we remain faithful to the English Reformation and the Book of Common Prayer.
Of the many prayers that he conflated, compiled and composed, the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent exemplifies Cranmer’s profound simplicity:
BLESSED Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
Commenting on this prayer in The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl tell us that “Cranmer invites us to love the Bible and learn it.…” The question is, however, how can we most effectively learn it? Although many answers to this question have been offered, one stands the test of time: Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, is an ancient practice that has garnered a great deal of attention over the past quarter of a century. Books abound, and many groups have been formed around the priority, principle and practice of reading the Bible in this manner. Nevertheless, and in spite of my being associated with a monastic community for many years, I have often struggled with the three-fold or four-fold process of Lectio. The words used to explain this process were foreign, unfamiliar and frustrating.
And then I discovered Cranmer’s Collect! As I reflected upon his prayer, several words dominated my thinking: HEAR…READ…MARK…LEARN…DIGEST. These are important words. Cranmer was not only devout, he was deliberate. When examined his words frame the practice of Lectio Divina, Holy Reading. They provide us with a broad and brief outline for reading the Bible well.
HEAR: The first word centers our considered concentration within the context of community. The Holy Reading of Holy Scripture is not an isolated activity. We read within the context and confines of Church. (In this sense, Lectio is very much like “doing” Theology.) Many in the primitive Church could not read. In order to hear God’s Word they needed to attend some form of public worship. Bibles, as such, were not (generally speaking) in homes. Although we are afforded such a luxury, and often have three or four Bibles on our bookshelves, this was not the experience of the early Church. Hearing was a community event that was corporately embraced and enjoyed. Consequently, to some degree, community determined interpretation.
What this means for us is that contemplation must be set within a community context. Meditating upon Holy Scripture is not a serendipitous enterprise. We should not read the Sacred Text as if it is a Ouija Board, hoping that in some way, somehow, God will have something to say to us– if we could only discover the right letters or words. Certainly we need to listen. Certainly God has something to “say.” We must, indeed, be alert and attentive. Nevertheless, and importantly, what we hear must be honed by community consensus. In other words, our hearing must not simply confirm us in our perspectives. Rather, God’s confirming and comforting words (that sometimes convict, convince and convert) must in some way conform us to the community of the Church to which we belong. It is God’s Word to God’s people of which I am just a small, albeit important, part. ME and MY Bible conforms to WE and OUR Bible– as revealed by God and revered by US.
READ: There are many ways to read the Bible. Many read the Bible consecutively, beginning with Genesis and ending at Revelation. Some people study a theme. Certain passages tend to dominate the attention of others. Others read texts in keeping with the historic Lectionary. All of these have value and, although some methods to be commended above others, all can be edifying and instructive.
Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, provides us with a unique way of reflection. Although any of the methods cited above can be used, Lectio tends toward brief readings. That is, Lectio tends to focus upon short passages for sustained attention. Many years ago, almost forty to be exact, I was introduced to the life and writings of the Eastern Christian mystic, Sadhu Sundar Singh. This man’s method of reading Scripture was in keeping with the practice of Lectio Divina. He would take a VERY small portion of the Bible and meditate on it. I, in contrast, would read extensively from the biblical text. Singh read for DEPTH and I read for breadth, but, regarding the practice of Holy Reading, DEPTH is what we are seeking. As such we must read less in order to read more. Certainly there is a place for broad reading. We must be attentive to the “whole counsel of God” within the whole community of the Church. And yet, at times, reading deeply is to be preferred. To grow up we must grow down, we must allow ourselves to “sink” and “drink” deeply into and from the Sacred Text. Reading well means that we devoutly delve deeply into the text– and that without Commentaries. No tree grows tall with shallow roots!
MARK: We often rush through our reading. Passing from one verse to another we, at best, note passages of personal import. Sometimes we may even write it down. Sometimes, if very lucky, we may even try to pray the Text. Marking means that we, in our reflective reading, have identified a word, passage or idea that has special significance for us. We “mark” it “important.” As such we spend time with this text. We read and read and read it. We think about it. We ask it questions. We let the Text question us. We turn it around in our hearts like a special marble (dare I say pearl!) in the hand of a child. We sit silently before it.
We understand this within our relationships. One of the best things about my relationship with my wife is that, although we DO speak, we often just enjoy each other’s company. We mark each other’s presence by being and waiting and enjoying. We embrace the presence of each other and, on many occasions, say very little. I am sure that you enjoy this with your spouse as well– or I at least hope you do. Marking the word is to wait within it. Marking the word is waiting upon it. “I wait for the Lord / My soul does wait / and in His word do I hope.” Marking the word is letting it have its way with us.
LEARN: Catholic devotional writer, Thomas á Kempis, has rightly acknowledged that some learning is only achieved by doing. He writes, “He who would completely understand the words of Christ must entirely conform himself to the life of Christ.” Western Christians often think of learning in academic terms. Rarely do we think of learning by doing– or learning as doing. Information is valued far more than transformation although, thankfully, this is beginning to change. Education without application produces, at times, doubts. Education without transformation is damning.
In the practice of Lectio Divina, Holy Reading, reflection always leads to action. We must DO in order to develop. At times our “doing” may move us inward. We may need to attend to our own private attitudes and orientations. At other times our “doing” will move us outward, toward others. Both however, upon learning, move us upward into God.
This upward action moves us outward beyond ourselves. Lectio is about encounter. It is about being with God. It is about being with others. It is about being with our deepest self, in all of its glory and ruin, as we encounter the God within which we “live and move and have our being.” Insight is important. Understanding is critical. Action is crucial. Learning has both lips and legs.
DIGEST: Digestion is aided by thorough chewing. The more we chew our food the more our digestive system will be aided. This applies to the practice and priority of Holy Reading. As “hearers” and “doers” of the word we must also learn to be efficient and effective “chewers” of the word.
One of my many bad habits is gulping my food. (Certain Eastern monastics do the same thing, but for radically different reasons!) My wife often tells me, politely but pointedly, “CHEW!” Of course she is right. Because I do not chew as well as I should I at times have stomach problems, my teeth do not get the workout they need, and the nutrients I should derive from chewing are minimized. The same is true for HOLY Reading. Holy Reading means that we must wholly read. We must chew, chew, chew, chew, and chew the biblical text if we are going to derive the nutrients we need from it.
This means that we never move beyond the Holy Text. To read the written word well is to encounter the Living Word. We cannot dispense with one without dispensing with the other. Word and word are connected and, properly understood and articulated, are one.
Christians should and must concern themselves with Bible Study. Study, as Richard Foster has so capably stated, is a discipline for disciples. As such there will always be a place for devout academic inquiry. These things said, however, Holy Reading graces us with the opportunity for encounter. It provides us the essential luxury of being with God. Loving the written word, which Cranmer commends, requires living in and with the Living Word. Are we luxuriating in Lectio– in Holy Reading?
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Every true Christian hungers and thirsts for holiness. This inherent inclination (which must be followed by crisis-experience) is because we are “born again” by the Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit of holiness that dwells within every regenerate believer. That is, in other words, we want to be holy because we have the Holy Spirit living within us (emphasis mine).
This said and understood; what practical steps can we take in order to become more holy, more Christ-like in our nature, disposition, and affairs? We must, briefly stated, walk in and by the Holy Spirit in order to both avoid (when we can) and overcome (by God’s grace) the corrupting influences of Satan, sin, self, and society. Granted, sanctification is a crisis experience. Granted, as well, we must make ourselves available to the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit. And yet, with these truths both believed and obeyed, are there practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the Christian perfection that God, through Christ by the Holy Spirit, has for us? The answer to these broad and brief questions is a resounding “YES!” There are indeed practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the sanctifying gifts and graces that God has for us. These, in part, are found in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-9). (more…)
In silence and in stillness a religious soul advances…and learns the mysteries of Holy Scripture. – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
Over the years I have become increasingly surprised by the number of Christians who have no devotional life, not to even suggest a life of devotion. It seems that, at least from my contacts and conversations, these people have little will or wherewithal to properly discipline themselves. Oddly, refusing to spend time with God, they wonder why they exhibit minimal growth and experience maximum temptations.
A man I know quite well experienced the socio-psycho-pneumatic fallout of this neglect almost immediately after his reversion (he was raised within a Christian home) and return to the church. Having barely emerged from the drug-using subculture, in all of its expressions, he did little more than attend weekly services of worship. Little attention was paid to prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture, and other devotional practices. In short order he returned to his old wayward lifestyle and, for about a year, was much worse off than he had previously been. He himself admits, now for some years stable in Christ, that he was as “a dog returned to its vomit.” Anyone who refuses to actively walk with God, to practice disciplines, is subject to the same spiritual dereliction.
Thomas á Kempis, in the above-cited quotation from his first book, outlines a pattern and process for spiritual growth. If the soul wants to advance in her relationship with God, she must apply herself to rigorous – or at least regular and consistent – discipline. There are at least four disciplines, and / or dispositions, to which the soul must avail itself.
If the soul is to “learn the mysteries,” she must first be inclined to strive toward God. She must “hunger” and “thirst” for the Beloved. This is not our work, it is the work of God. The Spirit must incline our hearts toward God. It is not a goal that we achieve, it is a grace that the Christian receives. If we are not passionate for God, if we do not desire the Divine, we must carefully examine our relationship with God. Those who are alive by the Holy Spirit want to live holy lives. While there will be struggles, and failures, the perpetual passion of the Christian is to want to be holy. We want to walk with God. We want to be with him. If there is no desire, we are in a state of spiritual decline and are on the path of spiritual dereliction.
Moreover, to learn the mysteries, we must cultivate silence. One of the highest compliments I have given my wife, a compliment that she had no difficulty in understanding, was when I told her that “being with [her] is as good as being alone.” Think about it. Although my wife and I do enjoy wonderful conversations, we also enjoy periods of protracted silence. We simply sit and enjoy each other’s company. We “be.” One of the primary monastic disciplines, and ascetic Christian discipline, is silence. Often, when we pray, the conversation is almost entirely one-sided. We speak and, we think, God listens. While God does listen, and while God does want to hear what we say, God also wants to speak with us. Sometimes God wants to speak, or simply be, with us. Without cultivating the discipline of silence we will not be prepared to hear the voice, or the presence, of God. Silence prepares us to hear Scripture and Spirit– as well as the “saints” who also have something to speak into our lives.
Stillness, a third discipline, takes us beyond the place of silence. Silence is practiced so that stillness may be attained. In any relationship there is “baggage” needing to be addressed. If we are not attentive to this “baggage,” life begins to pile up and problems begin to occur. Soon, if we do not address these issues, they begin to make demands upon our attention. The issues begin to shout for our attention. Soon, if we are not attentive, they begin to scream. This applies to silence and stillness. Anyone who has sought to cultivate silence in her life will invariably experience a number of “voices” or obligations clamoring for attention. As soon as you settle down to be with God, a host of distractions seek to dissuade us from our intention. These distractions that dissuade, these “voices,” must be committedly and consistently set aside by the practice of silence. We must, during our time with God, refuse to attend to their insistent demands. Solitude is achieved when the discipline of silence gives way to the disposition of stillness. When we no longer are distracted by demands, when no voice but God’s insists upon our attention, stillness is achieved. How might we accomplish this, keeping in mind that stillness is a grace received as well as the reward of discipline? Several practical practices can be helpful. First set aside a fixed time, morning and evening, when devotional practices (time with God) can be cultivated. Second, especially if you have children and are busy, set aside a place in your home where you can be uninterrupted. This may require that you tell your spouse and children, as well as any roommates you may have, that you are not to be disturbed (apart from dire emergencies) when you are in this place. Some people have a room dedicated to this discipline. Others have family altars. Others, yet, may simply have a chair, designated as the prayer-chair, where others know that they are not to be disturbed when sitting in this particular place. Sacred space must be secured and developed! Finally, begin your time with silence. Stop. Wait. Wait. Listen. Listen. Let go of your desire. Let go of your responsibilities. Release all of these things to God. Let Go and let God. If insistent items still demand your attention, write them briefly down in a notebook to attend to at a later time. Silence prepares the way for stillness. Silence prepares the way for speech and for song.
Thomas á Kempis’ above-noted quotation suggests that silence and stillness prepare us to learn the mysteries of Holy Writ. This is true, but not exclusively true. Reading and reflecting upon Holy Writ also prepares us for silence and stillness. It is not without reason that many Prayer Books begin with a biblical quotation, often coordinated with the Seasons of the Church, as an opening to prayer. As an example, one among dozens, a “Sentence” I like to say is “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” Another introductory Sentence I enjoy is “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in his word do I hope.” These, as well as other biblical quotations that are silently reflected upon, can prepare us to hear and heed God. (Another, easily remembered because of its frequent usage, is “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”) The reverent reading of and reflection upon the written Word of God can prepare us for silence and stillness.
Growth in God, striving for sanctification, is the natural state of the person who is alive in God. It is, so to speak, the normal Christian life– and not extraordinary in any way. By God’s good grace we have been afforded certain priorities and practices to assist us along our pathway into what has been called (improperly I believe) the “deeper life.” As the old hymn celebrates, “As we walk with the Lord / In the light of his word / What a glory he sheds on our way.…”
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.
Image above, right: “Sitting in Silence.” Photograph. Alice Popkorn.
“It is no small matter to dwell in a religious community, or congregation, to converse therein without complaint, and to persevere therein faithfully until death” – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB), in its very first chapter, considers four kinds of monks. Only one of these, however, is crucial to Benedict’s forthcoming Regula: The Cenobites who are submitted “to a Rule or Abbot.” The Sarabites and the Gyrovagi, respectively referenced as the “worst” and the wanderers, are directly dismissed as a disgrace to their monastic profession, while the Hermits consist of those who have attained sustained spiritual maturity. Saint Benedict writes for those who are Cenobites, “the most steadfast.”
Remaining steadfast is “no small matter,” as both Benedict and the author of the Imitation indicate. Anyone can claim to be under authority when, in practice, there is no one (“Abbot”) or nothing (“Rule”) to which we must submit. It is easy, dangerously easy, to assert and embrace spiritual disciplines for which no one holds us accountable. If we would embrace the life of an ascetic, monastic, Oblate, or simply a committed Christian, we must with Benedict reject spiritual grandiosity in every isolationist expression and seek to live in faithful community with others.
But how do we accomplish this? How do we remain steadfast? Given the fact that people are difficult, and that sustained relationships can be hard? What are some “how to” priorities and practices that we can take to heart?
In order to be good monastics, or faithful Christians, we must realistically face the fact that remaining in community can be difficult. As Thomas á Kempis insists, it is “no small matter” to establish stability as one of our guiding spiritual priorities. This difficulty is exacerbated in a culture that celebrates (and suffers from) unrestrained “freedom.” However, like it or not, such freedoms do not make us free. Instead, freedom of this sort only asserts a socio-psycho-pneumatic theology of bondage. This type of “freedom” only asserts chaos. Instead, to be truly free, we must have constraints. We must be under authority. To be truly be free we must learn to say “no,” and not simply “yes.” We must learn to embrace, stealing from St. Paul, the profitability of Christian living and not simply the permissibility of sub-Christian living. Many things may be “permissible” to the Christian, but, in order to grow, we must govern our lives the ethic of profitability. Only spiritual children live from the perspective of permissibility. If we live from permissibility we are spiritually immature. Stability under established authority is the profitability we should strive toward.
Growth occurs, by-and-large, through dwelling in a religious community. This is not the same as having an accountability group or a spiritual director. While both of these are commendable, they are insufficient. We can hide from an accountability group. We can hide from our spiritual director. It is far more difficult to hide from those with whom we share a common life. We must “dwell” with others intimately if we are to grow exponentially. We must live in and as community, with an authority over us, if we are going to avoid hiding.
But what does it mean for us to “dwell” together? I am sure that many of us are aware of those who “dwell” together but live apart. Such “relationships” exist in marriages, homes, workplaces, congregations and monasteries. Technically they “live” together, but, practically speaking, they are divorced from each other. They share space but they do not share life. To dwell in a religious community, therefore, suggests at least three practices: religion, conversation, and confession. These, together, determine the faithfulness referenced by Benedict and refined by á Kempis.
Religion is critical to dwelling effectively together. This includes both rituals and relationships. The quality of our religion is determined by how we live our lives, by how our rituals define and refine our relationships. St. Benedict’s entire Rule seeks to regulate relationships around the priority of prayer. Every ritual and every practice revolves around what is “profitable for another” (RB 72) so that prayer will be unhindered. Every gathering, discussion, and engagement attends and submits to certain rituals so that we might more effectively live lives devoted to prayer. As such, prayer is not just a private devotional practice (although we must pray privately) it is a poignantly social discipline. Spiritual disciplines for the purpose of prayer require disciples. There must, citing the Lord’s Prayer, be a practical “Our” if God is “Father.” Practically speaking, therefore, the Christian religion must be entirely relational and familial.
Conversation also determines both the quality of our relationships and of our prayers. Let us face, again, some facts. Living as a community will at times be difficult. Being accountable to proper authority is not easy. Every relationship will be prone to entropy. The “answer” to these problems may be found in having conversations. This, in part, is why Saint Benedict called the brothers [and sisters] to Council. In order to make sure that our relationships were sound and that our prayers would be heard, Saint Benedict insisted upon conversation. Any type of conversation was not adequate, however. True conversation for the purpose of prayer has guardrails: the Abbot, the Rule, and the voice of the young (RB 3). To neglect any one of these is to court shipwreck. We must listen to the Abbot, our guide, if the ship of “our” supplication is to be piloted properly. We must attend to the Rule, our map, if we are to safely arrive at “our” destination. We must listen to the young, the novices, if we are to avoid the many sirens of spiritual seduction that so often tempt the elder shipmates. Each must be heard. Each must be heeded. The “how” is conversation, with a priority given to Abbot and the Rule. Talk is the true tradition of the Church.
Confession is required in any relationship, and critical to the life of every disciple. We will fail. We will fall short. We will struggle and we will sin. At times our best intention will be grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. We have all experienced the painful disappointments associated with living in a community. The issue is, however, how to move beyond these difficulties and disappointments. It is easy simply to move on. It is easy to write off the offending party; but not if we live in and as community for the purpose of prayer. If we live the priority of community, according to the RB, we will need to find ways to build bridges. We must find ways to “persevere” “without complaint.” As such we must at times be committed enough to put up and shut up. Obedience (RB 5), Silence (RB 6) and Humility (RB 7) are critical to this– most especially when reconciliation is hard, or at times impossible, to achieve.
Faithfulness is what is needed. Faithfulness is the first and foremost quality required of a servant. This, as well, requires fidelity to and within the community, being fixed within the community, demonstrating practical functionality within the community (not distance and withdrawal), and seeking to embrace and abide by a fullness of faith when things do not happen as we would like to see them happen. When everything seems to fly apart, when the ship seems to be sinking, we must stand our ground. We must stand firm. We must do our duty. It is “no small matter” to be in community and to submit ourselves to proper authority. But this we must do if we are to grow.
Again we must return to the wisdom of Thomas á Kempis and the wisdom of the Community of the Common Life as articulated in the Imitation of Christ: “The wearing of the religious habit…[does] little profit, but change of manners and perfect mortification of the passions make a truly religious [person].
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.